On Friday, November 9, 2018, Fay L. Cunningham passed away in Littleton, Colorado at the age of 96. Cunningham worked on the Manhattan Project at MIT and went on to become a chemical engineer for the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Cunningham was born July 26, 1922 in Lansing, Michigan. After graduating high school in 1939, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps as the crew chief on a timber cruising crew. In 1940, Cunningham enrolled at Michigan State University and completed two years of training in engineering before joining the Army. As part of the Army Specialized Training Program, he was sent to the University of Maryland for advanced mechanical engineering training.
After graduating from the program, Cunningham was assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment and transferred to the metallurgical department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His team had orders to masquerade as civilians. In a 2013 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Cunningham recalled his invented backstory to counter comments from Bostonians: “It was fair game to ask us how come we weren’t in the army or something. We all cooked up a story. I hurt my knees in football at the University of Maryland and got [a] medical discharge, which was not true…they fortunately had given us discharge pins to wear, which was very helpful because you get out of a street car or bus or something and you’d be the only guy on there between the ages of eighteen and forty maybe…And you get a lot of funny looks. But anyway, we had to survive that.”
In the spring of 1945, Cunningham was reassigned to work on enhancing the properties of beryllium for triggering nuclear reactions. “In the process I was exposed to a lot of beryllium dust and fumes when we were melting it and pouring it and grinding it and polishing it,” he explained. Cunningham’s exposure during his work at MIT caused him to contract berylliosis, a chronic lung disease, which he lived with for the rest of his life.
After the war, Cunningham served as a radiation monitor for the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. His team boarded the ships located in the fallout zones after the explosions to survey the radiological and physical damage. At the time, safety precautions were primitive and the effects of radiation exposure were relatively unknown. At 24 years old, Cunningham’s position as the radiation expert put him in charge of determining when it was safe to board. “If I figured the safe time was 45 minutes I’d tell the captain 30 and he’d say, ‘OK, we’ll say 15.’ We each had our own ideas about safety factors.”
Cunningham was discharged from the Army in October 1946 and returned to Michigan State University to finish his degree in chemical engineering. Upon graduation, he worked as a chemical engineer at the pilot plant of the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical firm in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Cunningham led a department that focused on making synthetic drugs safe, efficient, and cost-effective. He married Geraldine (Geri) Smokovitz in 1948 and adopted Bruce (Karen) Cunningham in 1954. Deborah (Patrick) Reynolds was born in 1957. Cunningham retired from directing chemical production at Upjohn in 1988 and spent his retirement traveling the world with Geri.
Cunningham was a Veteran Advisor for the Atomic Heritage Foundation. For more about Fay, you can visit his profile, read his memoirs, or watch his interview on the Voices of the Manhattan Project oral history website.